Is the Canada Council squandering your money?
Its job is deceptively easy: it gives away money to help scholars and artists. It’s hailed as an inspired godsend, damned as a wastrel throwing away funds on dubious ta lents and projects, and largely ignored by the public whose money it spends. Here’s how a unique experiment in Culture is paying off for Canada
WITHIN EIGHT YEARS the Canada Council appears to have grown from infancy to respectable middle age without experiencing the prime of life, let alone flaming youth. We have come to imagine it as a bureaucratic Santa Claus, unobtrusively keeping shows on the road, artists at their easels and scholars buried in books. Across the country it gets a meagre but generally favorable press, laced with periodic accusations that it’s a political pork barrel backing the obscure projects of nonentities who squander taxpayers’ money on vino and pot in Ibiza, a favorite shangri-la of many Canadians, situated off the coast of Spain. This argument is reiterated so often that the council has become adept at refuting it by demonstrating the considerable accomplishments of its protégés and then retreating gracefully out of the limelight.
In fact, this attack from the philistine right wing has the effect of obscuring the Canada Council’s real problems and shortcomings. It would make more sense to accuse it not of easy virtue but of prudery, of playing safe and avoiding experiments. It’s harder to suggest how the council should have spent its money than to second-guess it on the underwriting of failures. Claude Bissell, president of the University of Toronto, who was chairman of the council in the early sixties, says now, “I felt we were doing good things here and there but they weren’t big enough.”
To suggestions that the council should act more positively, give more grants, give bigger grants, scout the country for new talent and generally be more a midwife than a benevolent uncle, its officials have always pleaded poverty. But since last March that plea has been no longer valid. That was when the council got a ten-million-dollar government grant, a short-term subsidy that will have the eifect of doubling over the next three years its previous annual budget of about $3,200,000 for the arts, humanities and social sciences. The grant coincided with the appointment of its new director, Jean Boucher, a former Director of Citizenship in the Department of Citizenship And Immigration, trained in law,
political science and public administration at Laval and Chicago. Boucher, a chubby youthful man with a forthright manner, says, “What we will be doing over the next few years will be to see how much initiative the council should take. I don’t believe we should be merely passive; we should inspire and stimulate. We’re already developing young managers for artistic organizations, for instance. We might bring together people who are isolated, and encourage more mobility between artists and academics. We could maintain in Canada at any time two or three world authorities. When Barbara Ward [the British writer-economist] comes to Carleton for two days, she leaves everyone disturbed—and this is very healthy.” As evidence of good faith the council has already: DOUBLED GRANTS to most arts organizations for the 1965-66 season. This year, for instance, the National Ballet gets $190,000, the Montreal and Toronto Symphonies $100,000 each, the Vancouver Symphony $73,000 and the Winnipeg Symphony $67,200. The Stratford Festival jumps from $50,000 to $140,000, the Manitoba Theatre Centre from $35,000 to $95,000, and the Neptune Theatre from $34,100 to $65,000 plus up to $10,000 to match private donations.
MADE NEW GRANTS to Les Feux Follets, a Montreal folk-dance company, and the Canadian Theatre Centre, a clearing house for current information for actors, directors and producers across Canada.
HIRED AN EXPERT in financial management, André Fortier, to assess needs and resources and advise organizations on budgeting.
INCREASED AMOUNTS OF GRANTS to individuals. The mean for predoctoral and junior arts scholarships was $2,000, is now $2,500; for postdoctoral and senior arts fellowships was $4,000, now $5,000. Canada’s bids for top scholars have been forced up by rising competition from Britain and the U. S.
DROPPED PREMASTERS’ SCHOLARSHIPS (so much provincial and other help is now available for them
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Who gets grants? “Worthwhile guys,” says a puzzled art dealer, “and duds”
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the council offered one award seven times before it was taken up) and increased the number of predoetoral scholarships from 290 in 1965, to 425 in 1966.
From its beginning, the council has been plagued by myths and misunderstandings that tend to isolate its executive not only from the artists and scholars who were to be its immediate beneficiaries, but from the general public which was supposed to prolit culturally in the long run. This has come about partly because people have been lazy about seeking information about the council’s activities, but largely because council executives have been aware that the arts demand a more sensitive approach than, say, banking or cattle marketing. Like the medical profession, the council has seemed to want to gel on with the job in private and issue information on its own somewhat formal terms. Council executives frequently change their ground rules in the name ol flexibility, and conceal the identity of their judges and their reasons for accepting or rejecting a candidate. To outsiders their decisions often appear arbitrary. An art dealer told me, “The awarding of grants seems entirely hit-and-miss. I’ve seen all sorts of worthwhile guys get them, and all sorts of duds.”
To many people Canada Council operations seem pure fantasy. Though it’s not technically a government agency, the council is currently using public money to support people digging clay in Nova Scotia, weaving large experimental tapestries, producing electronic music and driving around Spain in a Volkswagen collecting poetry. It’s maintaining a theatre company that spends months, sometimes years, simultaneously playing and writing a single play. It’s paying a stage director to attend operas in Europe, and an editor to ponder the question, “What do people mean when they lament the purposelessness of life in the twentieth century?” Whether these projects make sense or nonsense depends on your viewpoint. The council won't attempt to convert lowbrows — even if they’re MPs.
The council owes its common-law relationship with the federal government to its first chairman, Brooke Claxton, an astute ex-politician who wanted to guarantee its freedom from pressures like those on the CBC and CNR. Established by act of parliament in March 1957, the Canada Council isn’t a government agency and its staff members aren’t civil servants (except when it comes to pensions). Its only obligation to parliament is the presentation of an annual report. Dr. Albert Trueman, director from 1957 to 1965. says, “We insist on autonomy. No one can give us any direction and I would hope that il any minister were indiscreet enough to try. we would throw it back at him.”
Nevertheless, lacking support from private benefactors, the council is financially dependent on parliament. Its
restrained attempts at money raising have so far hooked only two major gifts, a fund from Molson’s to provide fifteen-thousand-dollar annual prizes for two Canadians whose work is considered so outstanding that it “enriches the heritage of the nation,” and an anonymous present of $4,350,000 earmarked. curiously, for scholarships in engineering, medicine and science. Though parliament has no explicit right to influence the council, it could hamstring it by refusing to grant funds, firing the director and associate director, or appointing to the twentyone-man council members who could veto recommendations of the executive.
For its first seven years the council operated in a political vacuum, immune from pressure but also unable to obtain from parliament any addition to the one hundred million dollars with which it was established in 1957. In 1964 a redistribution of cabinet responsibilities drew the council into an anomalous position on the fringe of the cultural complex under Secretary of State Maurice Lamontagne. Last January at Ste. Adèle, Que., at a Canadian Conference Of I he Arts organized by Toronto philanthropist Arthur Gelber, Lamontagne spent four days in private session with members of Canada’s “cultural establishment” (Alan Jarvis, John C. Parkin, Tom Patterson, Philip Torno, Frank Scott, Mavor Moore, Robertson Davies, Hugh MacLennan and a hundred other seasoned conferencegoers) and emerged with an informal mandate for government support of
the council. In March, Prime Minister Pearson proposed a ten-million-dollar unconditional grant to the council.
How can a grant of ten million dollars double the budget of a fund set up with one hundred million dollars? The March grant is intended to be spent over the next three years while government and council consider whether the council should be split into separate agencies: one for the arts, and one for the humanities and social sciences. (In Quebec, where there’s a feeling that social sciences such as economic, political science and education arc the province’s affair, the title Le Conseil des Arts tactfully plays down the council’s academic function. In the rest of the country, many social scientists feel they’d get a better deal from an agency with a wholly academic program. Council director Boucher comments, “The suggestion that an organizational rearrangement would solve the issue is a short view. It’s not the presence of the arts in the Canada Council that inhibits us from doing more for the humanities and social sciences.”)
The original one hundred million dollars, on the other hand, was split into halves, one a diminishing fund of capital grants made to universities for buildings, the other an invested endowment fund whose interest provides grants for arts, humanities and social sciences. Slightly more than half the annual endowment fund budget goes to the arts, some to individuals (1,112 in the first eight years), more to organizations that filter it out in the form of jobs for performers, the re-
mainder as travel grants, publishing subsidies and other items.
In the humanities and social sciences, some money supports postdoctoral studies and long-term group projects. At Carleton University, for instance, Professors John Porter (author of The. Vertical Mosaic) and Peter Pineo are studying the prestige of occupations in Canada; at McGill. Dr. Joyce Hemlow is cataloguing the correspondence of eighteenth - century novelist Fanny Burney; Professor Paul Tolstoy, of the University of Montreal, is leading a three-year archeological expedition in Mexico. But the central purpose of the academic fund is a program of predoetoral scholarships designed to channel staff into our expanding universities. To judge applications in the humanities and social sciences, the council appoints committees of anonymous adjudicators, previously unpaid, now paid fifty dollars a day each.
Comparing rival artists, musicians, dancers and writers is more complicated and the council farms out its individual arts adjudication to Waiter Herbert, director of the Canada Foundation, a one-man fund-raising organization for the arts. “I really believe you could pick the scholars with a computer — if you had me as programmer,” Herbert says. “But in the arts there are a great many imponderables.” At present he simply draws on his own experience and vast acquaintance for a pool of about two hundred adjudicators across Canada.
Each candidate sends in six copies of his application along with favorable reviews of his work, sometimes just a few flattering phrases clipped in the manner of theatre advertisements. Artists send slides, musicians send tapes, but writers aren’t encouraged to send unpublished manuscripts. Three letters of reference come separately, some frank (“He works hard but he’ll never be any good”), some vague (from a CBC producer, “She’s acted in several plays and I’m sure she can write one”). Sometimes all three letters are unfavorable. Each application is sent to at least five judges who know the candidate’s work or. failing that, his field, and who give it marks from one to ten on the basis of his qualifications and their estimate of the worthiness of the project the applicant wants underwritten. Some people diminish their chances by switching fields (“I’m an engraver but I’d like to study ceramics”) or simply riding on a distinguished record (“I haven't decided what to do next”).
Having one grant doesn’t make it harder to get a second or even a third. At least seven winners of 1965 senior arts fellowships have had previous grants. With two junior scholarships and two travel grants plus his current fellowship, playwright John Gray holds the record as the oldest established permanent floating Canada Council beneficiary in England. Even with taxi drivers distributing free tickets, his last play Emmanuel Xoc drew the smallest houses of the Crest Theatre's 1965 season and the most scathing review the Toronto Star's Na'han Cohen has ever written.
In 1962 the council gave ten thou-
sand dollars to Toronto’s Civic Square Theatre, which folded after two productions. As a man involved in commercial theatre remarks. “When they started talking about ‘a concept of total theatre’ I knew it wouldn’t work.” The council’s associate director, Peter Dwyer, says tersely, “It looked good on paper.” As the council’s man in the arts field. Dwyer probably wouldn’t lose this kind ot gamble today. Though still committed to a policy of risks, he's spent the last seven years acquiring a remarkable working knowledge of people and programs on the culture circuit across Canada. A bulky, urbane, bilingual Englishman, he keeps in touch with winners and promising contenders.
Nowadays the council and its beneficiaries exchange regular installments of money and progress reports. It was different back in I960 when humorist Robert Thomas Allen got a four-thousand-dollar fellowship to write a book entitled When Toronto Was For Kids. When the book was well. under way, he was wakened one morning by a telephone call from a friend asking, “Have you seen the paper?” After a brief belated notice had reached him, and money mysteriously appeared in his bank account, Allen wrote the council, asking whom he should thank, but received no answer. Two years later he got a letter from the council; they were tidying their files and wanted to know what he'd done.
For young musicians, dancers and actors a council scholarship usually finances a year of study. For older artists and writers it's more likely to mean a chance to break out of a commercial routine, permanently or temporarily. When Tom Hodgson got a fellowship three years ago he had been working in commercial art full time for sixteen years. He quit his job and painted ninety pictures that year.
Novelist Hugh Garner, who wrote The Silence On The Shore on a senior fellowship in 1960, says, “It allowed me to come back out of journalism into serious writing after ten years without a book. The feeling that I owed them an ethical debt kept me to the grindstone to the point where the book itself look over and kept me there. I had years of writing in garrets. They say it’s good for an artist. The hell with that.”
One writer was so stunned by his grant that he promptly got blind drunk. Another told me. “My first sensation was paralyzing guilt. I felt I had to earn the money. My second was that I was going to be financially ruined by the time I’d got my whole family abroad.”
“You may have a very bad year because you’ve been jolted out of old ideas and new ones take time to work out. Artists who are any good are going to be affected by their experience and it may take them some time to find their feet,” says Jack Nichols, who used the technical facilities and experience of the Paris ateliers to develop a new lithographic technique of his own. When Saskatchewan painter Ronald Bloore went abroad on a Canada Council grant he was so moved by Greek and Egyptian art that he burned thirty of his paintings and two hundred drawings.
Along with its successes the council
has backed some undeniab'e washouts: histories too dull to be published, poems never written, academic research that bogged down in a mire of jargon and footnotes. Council director Jean Boucher admits ruefully, “Sometimes you have the feeling you’re assisting nonproduction.”
Some painters and sculptors feel that the government would serve them better by buying their work. Says sculptor Gerald Gladstone, “The Canada Council's only a beginning. You
can’t send us away and train us. then bring us back to nothing. There a'e projects in science, medicine, space, but no outlets for art.”
While some critics urge the council to clarify and codify its policies, others think this would increase the danger of its hardening into one more Canadian institution designed to perpetuate the status quo. As its influence continues to grow, rejection by the council might close the door on the chances of nonconformists who might once
have got funds from other sources.
And its influence seems sure to grow. Neither Maurice Lamontagne nor Jean Boucher doubts that government financial support will continue. Says Lamontagne. “Grants aren’t usually reduced and I'm not worried. We think that for a number of years, two or three at least, the Canada Council should define its own goals, work out its own economics."
Beyond that point, its direction is anyone’s guess. ★